A cottontail rabbit crossed the trail here, passing from open woods to a brushy thicket at the edge of a wetland. Before entering the thicket the cottontail paused to nibble a twig sprouting from a red maple stump. Suddenly he heard, then saw, a red fox stealthily approaching from the woods, coming into view just below the embankment. With one leap the rabbit reached the relative safety of some dense red-stemmed dogwood bushes six feet away. Though the fox had broken into a run, she was not able to overtake the cottontail before it disappeared into an impenetrable tangle of brush. So the fox gave up the chase, resuming her more leisurely pace along the trail itself, and the rabbit won a reprieve, at least for today.
This story, and many others, was recorded on a blank white page of new-fallen snow this week for myself and anybody else to read. Rabbit tracks, like those of squirrels, chipmunks and mice, come in sets of four prints relatively close together. The hopping gait of these animals puts the hind footprints in front of those made by the smaller forefeet, opposite to what we might expect. Rabbits, unlike squirrels (whose tracks are the most common in our woods, and often lead from tree to tree) place their forefeet one behind the other as they go, so that rabbit tracks make a pattern resembling the letter “Y.” It’s easy to visualize, from the change in its track pattern, this cottontail pausing for a trailside nibble, and here a twig nipped off cleanly, as if with pruning shears, shows this clearly. A deer, in contrast, lacks upper incisors, so it tears twigs off in browsing instead of clipping them neatly as a rabbit does.
The rabbit’s six-foot leap from its resting position was clearly marked in the snow, as was the pursuing fox’s change in gait from a walk to a trot to a gallop. Fox prints resemble those of a small domestic dog, but a fox leaves a straighter track, showing the wariness and efficiency of movement needed to survive in the wild. Foxes, like coyotes, usually place their hind feet in the prints left by their forefeet. Domestic cats, with their round prints that show no claw marks, also walk this way, but dogs do not, so their tracks look sloppier. Following these fox tracks back, there is no sign that the fox stopped to urinate and leave its scent on likely rocks or stumps, so it was probably a vixen, rather than a male fox.
Tracks vary greatly according to the size of the animal making them, its speed of travel, and the texture of the snow or mud they are made in, along with how long ago they were made. If cold weather holds for a while, or at least for a couple of nights after a snowfall, the richness and diversity of the track record will grow. There is a special thrill in knowing that your path has intersected with the path of a wild creature at a particular moment in its life, especially when the evidence of its track or other sign gives you a glimpse into what it was up to. A squirrel’s track leading to a “tunnel” turning up the brown leaf litter beneath the snow shows where he retrieved a buried nut. Skunks often wake from their deep winter sleep during thaws, so look at such times for the diagonally-paired hind and forefoot prints in the snow that reveal where they’ve come out of their dens to forage. Likewise for raccoons, who leave behind five-fingered prints that sometimes look uncannily human.
Reading tracks was and is a survival skill for native people. For most of us, it’s a pleasant outdoor pastime, a kind of naturalist’s detective game, Tracks can show us something of the non-human activity going on, mostly at night, in our own backyards. They are a reminder to us that we are not the only show in town. At a time when the damage humans have done, and are doing, to the living world, is harder and harder to ignore, it’s reassuring to see the evidence of all these other lives continuing alongside our own.
Richard Parisio has worked as an interpretive naturalist for over 35 years, in the Everglades, Pocono Mountains, at Assateague Island, and, since 1984, in the Catskills and Hudson valley. He currently teaches school classes at Mohonk Preserve and leads tours of Slabsides and nature walks at the John Burroughs Sanctuary for school classes, elder hostels and other groups.